New York town awaits Supreme Court ruling on moment of prayer

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“In government you should be encouraging participation and encourage the feeling of being included and being an important member of your community,” she said in a brief phone interview.

After the complaints, the town, in 2008, had a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation and a lay Jewish man deliver four of the prayers. But from January 2009 through June 2010, the prayer-givers were again invited Christian clergy, according to court documents.

Reilich said the town accepts requests from people of any religion to deliver the prayer and that the vast majority of residents view it as routine as the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ayesha Khan, the legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the suit on Galloway and Stephens’ behalf, said the women have received both support and criticism from neighbors. She said Stephens’ car was vandalized and someone dug up her mailbox and threw it into her pool.

The two residents lost their suit in U.S. District Court after the judge found that the town did not intentionally exclude non-Christians and that the content of the prayer was not intended to proselytize or demean other faiths. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the practice of having one Christian prayer after another amounted to the town’s endorsement of Christianity.

“We would like to see the practice of legislative prayer be inclusive of all traditions, whether that includes Muslims and Buddhists but also nontheists,” Kahn said.

In hearing the case in November, the judges raised various scenarios that included having officials review the content of prayers to make sure they are not sectarian or seeing that ministers are routinely advised of the diversity of the town board audience.

Justice Samuel Alito was doubtful about the residents’ suggestion to eliminate explicit references to any religion, given the country’s religious diversity. “I just don’t see how it is possible to compose anything that you could call a prayer that is acceptable to all of these groups,” he said.

Callahan, the sales rep, said that short of doing away with the prayer, the town board should not only honor requests from any religion - but also no religion.

“If someone says, ‘I prefer one week we don’t have a prayer,’ don’t have a prayer,” he said.

Jerry Figliole, 68, said he’s never felt forced to participate in the prayer at meetings he’s attended. The audience and board stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and then sit while the prayer is offered.

“It’s not like a service. It’s very short,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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